Sunday, July 13, 2008

Rum, Sodomy and the Lash

I have just finished Marcus Clarke's His Natural Life (also published as For the Term of His Natural Life) and am still reeling from the shock of reading a Victorian novel that includes homosexual rape, child suicide, cannibalism, alcoholism, atheism and adultery. Why isn't this book more widely known?

Clarke's life reads like a Victorian novel. Born in London in 1846, Clarke's mother died when he was four and his childhood was marked by ill health and the erratic behaviour of his father which eventually culminated in a nervous breakdown. When Clarke reached adolescence, it was discovered that the family fortune had inexplicably disappeared and his prospects seemed grim until a relative suggested that the he should seek his fortune in Australia. Clarke arrived in Melbourne a few months after his 17th birthday. His adulthood was marked by the twin blights of a writer's life - alcoholism and penury and he died at the age of 36.

His Natural Life is a great novel, but not a perfect one. It has many faults, including an excessive reliance on melodrama and that bane of classic novels, the use of highly improbable coincidences. I also felt that the last quarter of the book was quite patchy. However, none of these flaws diminish the overall experience of reading this compelling, powerful and angry novel.

Set mainly in the brutal environment of a Tasmanian penal colony, Clarke's novel was originally published in serial form which perhaps explains why His Natural Life is so compulsively readable. The author is a great storyteller and this is a 'rattling good yarn', with dastardly villains, cliffhanger endings and a wonderful sense of place. But this novel's claim to greatness lies in the author's treatment of his subject matter which, in its scope and candour, bears comparison to Zola. I cannot imagine this novel being written in Victorian England, let alone published.

I have tried to find a photo of the penal settlement of Port Arthur, but I don't think this picture really captures the horrors of convict life in the nineteenth century. In fact it looks very inviting. I think it's probably best to visit grim places in bad weather.

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